The Holborn Military Hospital, Mitcham
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this vast building on Western Road, Mitcham, was the Holborn Union Workhouse. It provided food, shelter and accommodation for over 1000 pauper inmates. The Holborn Union also ran the striking Holborn Industrial School, situated between London Road and Bond Road, Mitcham. This housed 1000 poor, or orphaned children and gave them vocational training to improve their future job prospects.
In 1916, the War Office requisitioned the Holborn Union Workhouse for use as a military hospital. The vast nature of the building enabled the hospital authorities to care for 954 patients. 176 of these were suffering from scabies, a highly infectious skin condition caused by a parasitic mite. The nature of trench warfare, with its close confinement and poor sanitation, meant that scabies, lice and other parasitic infestations were common amongst servicemen on the Western Front.
64 of the Mitcham-based patients were suffering from meningitis. This is not surprising as the illness often affects young men and a large proportion of Kitchener's army was below the age of 25. The hospital was also treating 30 men who had lost limbs during the conflict and were awaiting discharge.
The patients would have been treated by a mixture of regular and Volunteer Aid Detachment nurses. In addition to caring for their physical needs, the hospital also considered their psychological welfare. In July 1917, Princess Helena, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and a cousin of King George V, opened a recreation hut for the patients. This was one of a number of such facilities provided by the Y.M.C.A. Many contained writing rooms, billiard tables, a gramophone, card tables and sometimes a canteen, where the ladies of the Church Army supplied a range of refreshments.
Good hygiene was vital to the recovery of severely wounded troops and over 100 cooks and cleaners were employed at the hospital. In September 1918 they went on strike in support of a colleague who had been transferred from one job to another by the hospital matron. Industrial action was surprisingly common during the First World War and the women, who had recently joined the Union of General Workers, were dissatisfied with their rates of pay. Their wages were said to be less than those of workers at other military hospitals and a request for an increase was made to the Holborn Union Board of Guardians. The strike posed a particular problem for the nursing staff, as the 900 patients still had to be fed. It is likely that a contingent from the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was brought in to replace the strikers.
The Holborn Military Hospital closed in 1919. The workhouse buildings were vacant for much of the 1920s, before being put to industrial use. They were demolished in the 1980s. The site is now occupied by an Asda supermarket.
A brick pillar which once stood at the entrance to the hospital, held a memorial plaque commemorating the servicemen who died there. A nurse was also amongst those listed and may have died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. When the buildings were demolished, the plaque was rescued by the members of Merton Historical Society. It is now in the care of Merton Heritage Centre.